It’s fair to say that Deus Ex has inspired a lot of games, but few wear that inspiration quite as openly as Dex. Just being an exploration-driven cyberpunk RPG with a heavy emphasis on cybernetic augmentation and player choice would be enough to draw comparisons, but there’s also the issue of the name. “Dex” is really just “Deus Ex” with half of the letters and most of the meaning taken out. Actually, now that I think of it, that totally-not-at-all-contrived sentence is a good way to describe the current state of this early access game.
Dex is a trench-coated cyborg lady who lives in Harbor Prime, a neon-lit dystopia whose seedy underbelly lies bloated and exposed. Drugs, weapons, and black market cybernetic implants are sold on every corner of streets that are ruled by vicious gangs. As Dex explores this free-roaming, metroidvania-esque metropolis, she has the choice to profit from this corruption or purge it. The current build of the game lacks a main story, but side quests abound with plenty of possible outcomes, not to mention approaches. You can tackle most challenges with your pick of stealth or brute force, though neither is particularly effective at this time.
Combat takes on a two-button brawler approach wherein you use the left and right mouse buttons to punch and kick. With different stances you actually have quite a few moves at your disposal, but in practice it’s very difficult to use anything but a crouching kick effectively. Enemies charge in close the second they see you, and each punch they throw knocks you on your back just long enough to get hit again on your way up. It can be a little overwhelming, to say the least, especially against multiple enemies. Gun controls are barely functional (you have to hold the middle mouse button down to aim, and your shots don’t actually go where you’re pointing), so you really have no option but to mash and hope for the best.
Stealth doesn’t fare much better. Enemies are just a little too aware of their surroundings, and half the time they’ll spot you and come running before you even know they’re there. It seems like they can pick up on the slightest sounds, and while it’s nice to be able to see their vision cones, it doesn’t help much when there’s no real way around them in 2D space. If you catch a foe from behind you can perform a neck-breaking takedown, but that’s more or less the extent of the stealth mechanics. Hopefully both stealth and combat will be beefed up for Dex’s full release. Even the developer describes their alpha implementation as “raw.”
One thing that will need a complete overhaul is the game’s writing. Dex showcases some decent world-building, but its actual script is atrocious. Most lines are written in broken English, and the few that are legible also happen to be drab and uninspired. Most of the side-quests present in the alpha are the sort of b-stories that would be cut from Human Revolution for being too clichéd. I know I harp on writing a lot, but in RPGs especially it’s a vital element, and in that department Dex (to put it kindly) needs work.
On the flip side, Dex absolutely nails the cyberpunk aesthetic with moody music and gritty, detailed visuals. Parallax layers give the oppressive backdrops a lot of depth, while striking particle and lighting effects bring the foreground to life. Characters are depicted with high-fidelity sprites, and in addition to interactive NPCs and enemies, you’ll see dozens of unique people wandering the streets of Harbor-Prime as you explore – a nice, immersion-enhancing touch. The characters have detailed animations as well, but as is the case with many independent games, they look a little stiff.
Dex has a long way to go before it’s worth buying, and I doubt it’ll ever catch up to cyberpunk titans like Deus Ex or Shadowrun Returns. It gets a lot of the cyberpunk fundamentals right in presenting a big, open, beautiful city with plenty of space to experiment. Unfortunately, it also gets many RPG fundamentals wrong, especially when it comes to writing. If the combat and stealth mechanics can be improved, then Dex could be a great deal of fun to play, but unless the script is rewritten most RPG fans won’t get much out else of it. There’s plenty of potential here, but for now you’d be wise to give Dex a pass.